In February 2014 Courtney Nguyen, now @WTAInsider but then a blogger with Sports Illustrated, had an eMail conversation with me that was published as “A Fan’s View – Roger Federer.”
As well as looking back at my origin story as a fan (playing hooky from work to watch Federer play Gaudio in the 2004 ATP Year End Championships in Houston) and reminiscence of the dominant years, Courtney asked me to look forward to the rest of 2014 and beyond. Was the back injury sustained by Federer in 2013 the reason for his slump? Would a bigger racquet (Fed had just made the switch to a 98” frame) pay dividends? Would Federer be able to stay competitive with the bigger guys?
Brad Delong, one of the top economics bloggers, talks often about “marking his beliefs to market” – in other words, testing your forecasts against actual outcomes to allow you to learn from your mistakes as well as your successes. So here we go. What did I say then, what turned out, and how do my predictions look with hindsight?
SI.com: I assume 2013 was a rough year for Federer fans. Watching him as much as you do, which match was the most surprising to you?
Burton: As you know, I’m a tennis stats geek: I’ve spent a lot of time charting players’ career arcs, and Federer, bless his heart, is following a well-trodden path. So I wasn’t stunned by 2013. I was disconcerted by his increasing physical fragility.
No single match was the most surprising. There were some early-round losses in the first part of 2013 to mid-level players — for example, Julien Benneteau in Rotterdam and Kei Nishikori in Madrid — which seemed odd. The loss to Sergiy Stakhovsky at Wimbledon in the second round was a surprise, but I thought Stakhovskhy red-lined all match and took his chance when it came.
2018 view: Federer’s “increasing physical fragility” showed up later in 2014, most notably when he injured his back at the end of a dramatic London WTF semi final against Stan Wawrinka, then was unable to take the court for the final against Novak Djokovic. Federer then scrambled to get fit for the Davis Cup final against France in Lille. He was dominated by Gael Monfils in a straight sets loss on day 1, but Wawrinka’s own win and leadership in their Saturday doubles against Julien Benneteau and Richard Gasquet set the table for a tie clinching singles win over Gasquet on Sunday. Even in that match Federer apparently told his captain, Severin Luthi, that he might not be able to finish.
Federer went largely injury free in 2015, but 2016 was a different story – a horror story for Federer fans. A freak knee injury after the Australian Open required surgery; illness kept him from returning to the court in Miami; Federer picked up a back strain before Madrid, perhaps compensating for instability in his knee; then after choosing to miss Roland Garros, breaking a 64 tournament streak at the Grand Slam level, Federer played a below par grass court season, capped by a symbolic fall to the turf in a final set semi final loss to Milos Raonic at Wimbledon.
Federer chose to end his season then, and approached the 2017 Australian Open hoping to be fully competitive by mid year. As we know, he was quite competitive before then. But physical fragility is still a big part of the picture: Federer skipped the 2017 clay season entirely, and his summer North American hard court swing was affected by another back strain, this time in the Montreal final against Sascha Zverev. Federer had to pull out of Cincinnati, then gritted his way through the first four rounds at the US Open before Del Potro beat him in the quarter finals.
Increasing physical fragility? I’ll mark that at 75% correct.
SI.com: Toward the end of last season Federer said his back injury was the primary reason for his slump. Do you buy that?
Burton: After the disappointing loss to Stakhovsky, Federer decided to play two clay-court tournaments and test out a new racket. He played the Hamburg quarterfinal against Florian Mayer on a cold evening, and by the end of the second set Federer was just spinning his serves in and I knew his back had gone again. This was the fourth time Federer’s back had given out in tournaments in 18 months (Doha 2012, Wimbledon 2012 and Indian Wells 2013 were the others). Now it seemed like a chronic problem.
I’m pretty sure he thinks the back injury had a lot to do with disappointments, especially at Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Apart from matches where he was clearly feeling a twinge, it affected his training schedule and tournament preparation, and likely his confidence and match game plans as well. I know he feels that when he couldn’t trust his back he couldn’t trust his ability to defend, so he feels that he wasn’t ready to play his best tennis.
It’s a strong argument, but I don’t think it’s the whole story. Even with a clean bill of health, these days Nadal is a prohibitive favorite every time he plays Federer, and I’d argue that Federer is now the underdog against a healthy Murray or Djokovic. Unless he can bring something new to the table against these players — um, bigger hitting with a bigger stick? — the five or six years he gives away to the top guys will continue to kill him.
SI.com: You mentioned the bigger racket. Is that the change that will keep him competitive with the top guys?
Burton: It’s a racket, not a magic wand! Suppose we can turn the dial back to 2010: Federer is probably 50:50 vs. Murray and Djokovic on all surfaces, but a huge underdog against Nadal on clay and an underdog against Nadal on outdoor hard courts.
I read that one of Nadal’s coaches recently said something to the effect that Federer had the ability to turn the dial up to 11 for passages of play, but that he couldn’t sustain that level and could drop down to a 7, while Nadal and Djokovic knew how to maintain a consistent 8 or 9 out of 10 level of play. That sounds right, with Murray a half notch behind.
The five-to-six-year age gap doesn’t keep getting bigger, but I think there’s a big difference between being a 33-year-old playing 27- or 28-year-olds and a 29-year-old playing 23- or 24-year-old opponents.
2018 view: I discussed the physical issues above, so let’s take a look at the rivalries with the other Big 4 players. At the time of my conversation with Courtney, Federer had beaten Murray in Melbourne then lost decisively to Nadal in the semifinals. Over the next two years Federer would compile a 4-0 record against Murray, dropping no sets. He played Nadal once, at his home tournament in Basel in 2015, winning a three set final. And he played Novak Djokovic a staggering 14 times (not counting the London WTF walkover), winning 6 matches and losing 8 – but importantly, Djokovic won all 5 of the biggest matches, 3 Grand Slam Finals (Wimbledon 2014 and 2015, US Open 2015), a Grand Slam semi final (Australian Open 2016) and the London World Tour Finals in 2015.
Strikingly, Federer hasn’t played either Murray or Djokovic since he hurt his knee and had surgery two years ago. He did, of course, face Nadal on a memorable night in Melbourne in January 2017, one of 4 victories to no defeats that year – none of them on clay, as Federer himself has wryly observed.
How does my prediction look with 4 years hindsight? 33% correct, I’d say. Federer has clearly been an underdog against a healthy Djokovic, but is 9-0 against the other two.
SI.com: Based on what you saw in Australia, what are your expectations this year? Is he back?
Burton: Federer played well against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Murray, but Nadal was another story (as usual!). If all the top ATP players stay healthy, I don’t expect Federer to be one of the top two players. So in that sense, I don’t expect Federer to come “back” as he did in 2011-2012 (and you’ll remember I did call that shot early in 2012).
I do expect to see Federer play at the ATP World Tour Finals in November again: Being in the 3-8 range in 2014 is much more likely than one of the top two seeds, provided he stays fit. And there’s another tantalizing prospect: The Swiss have a decent Davis Cup draw, and Stan The Man Wawrinka is Australian Open champion and Swiss top dog.
Roger and Mirka have another child on the way. Federer’s going through his old dorky photos on Twitter. Federer genuinely still seems to have a zest for tennis, and the perspective to know that it’s just a part of life.
2018 view: I was wrong about the seedings at the 2014 London ATP WTFs; Federer did go in as the number 2 seed, but this was substantially due to Nadal ending his season early after dealing with wrist problems and appendix issues. And as mentioned above, my Davis Cup prediction turned out to be accurate.
The comparatively successful 2014 led most observers (including me) to believe that Federer certainly could win one more Grand Slam title to add to his then-total of 17. Three times in succession, he crashed into the rock of peak Novak.
Then came 2017, and early 2018. This Federer fan did not, repeat not see the results – 9 titles (3 Majors), 1 final – coming. But I did expect the zest for tennis, on display at the inaugural 2017 Laver Cup and 2018 Hopman Cup, to continue.
Overall, going to mark this as 33% correct as well. To sum up, 75%, 33% and 33% – I probably should keep my day job.
When I talked to Courtney in 2014, I was very influenced by a superb 2011 article in the New York Times Magazine by Michael Sokolove, “For Derek Jeter On His 37th Birthday”
“[T]he careers of elite athletes, enviable as they may be, are foreshortened versions of a human lifespan. Physical decline — in specific ways that affect what they do and who they are — begins for them before it does for normal people. The athletes themselves rarely see the beginnings of this process, or if they do, either do not acknowledge it or try to fight it off like just another inside fastball. They alter their training routines. Eat more chicken and fish, less red meat. They try to get “smarter” at their sport.
A great many of us, their fans, live in our own version of denial — even in this age of super-slow-motion replay and ever more granular statistical data. We want to think our favorite players have good years left, great accomplishments ahead of them, just as we would hope the same for ourselves.”
Four years on, this Federer fan has been delighted, albeit surprised, at the amount of great accomplishments – with possibly more to come. Perhaps the most important lesson for me has been that evidence based realism – my attempt not to fall into the trap of my own version of denial – can be trumped by genius and a zest for the game. And for those ATP or WTA tennis fans waiting for their own favorite great player to return to competition in full health, good things can come to those prepared to wait.
Zverev Roundtable — Tennis With A German Accent
German translation of our Sascha Zverev roundtable by @daflurl:
Runder Tisch – Wird Sascha Zverev 2019 ein Major gewinnen?
JANE VOIGT — @downthetee
Die Grand Slam Zukunft eines Spielers vorherzusagen gleicht einem Glücksspiel. Alexander Zverevs Chancen, 2019 ein Grand Slam Turnier zu gewinnen, sind letzten Sonntag bei den Nitto ATP Finals mit seinem 6-4, 6-3 Finalsieg über den 5-fach Sieger und die Nummer 1 der Welt dennoch gestiegen. Dieses Ergebnis gegen den stärksten Spieler auf der Tour seit Wimbledon war nicht unbedingt zu erwarten.
Der 21 Jahre alte Zverev zeigte allerdings mentale Stärke, eine Vorhand mit viel mehr Punch als noch vor einem Monat sowie ein sehr gutes Stellungsspiel näher an der Grundlinie, mit dem er Djokovic wichtige Zeit für seine Schläge und damit den gewohnten Komfort genommen hat.
Der Finalsieg war aber noch nicht alles. Im Semifinale hat er Roger Federer geschlagen, der das prestigeträchtige ATP Abschlussturnier ganze 6 Mal gewonnen hat. Die direkt aufeinanderfolgenden Siege über diese beiden Größen, die gemeinsam eine Sammlung von 34 Grand Slam Titel vorweisen können, geben dem 1,98m großen Deutschen bestimmt viel Vertrauen in sich selbst, in sein Team und seinen neuen Trainer Ivan Lendl, das es in die kommende Saison mitzunehmen gilt.
Sport Experten sprechen schon seit mehr als einem Jahr davon, dass Zverev ein Grand Slam Turnier gewinnen wird. Mit dem Viertelfinale in Roland Garros ist er diesem Ziel schon etwas näher gekommen, seine Schwäche in 5-Satz Matches hat aber weitere Vorstöße auf dieser Ebene verhindert.
Möglicherweise war Lendl derjenige in seinem Team, der ihm nahegelegt hat, näher an der Grundlinie zu stehen. Möglicherweise war er es, der ihm geraten hat, auf sich zu vertrauen, ans Netz zu kommen und Punkte schneller abzuschließen.
Sollte das der Fall gewesen sein und Zverev diese Ratschläge weiterhin befolgen, dann wird er auch bald auf Grand Slam Ebene zur Spitze gehören.
ANDREW BURTON – @burtonad
Zverev war erst 20, da wurde schon so viel von ihm erwartet. Heuer konnte er sich zum 2. Mal für das Turnier der 8 besten Spielern qualifizieren; nun hat er den Publikumsliebling im Semifinale und den aktuell Besten Spieler (gegen den er schon in der Gruppenphase gespielt hat) im Finale direkt hintereinander geschlagen. Die ATP hat einen neuen, leuchtenden Stern. Aber wird sein Aufstieg nächstes Jahr weitergehen?
Wäre nächstes Jahr 2004, wäre die Antwort JA.
Mit seinen Sieg 2003 in Houston hat Roger Federer einen 4-jährigen Erfolgslauf gestartet, in dem er 11 Majors, 3 davon im Jahr 2004, gewonnen hat. Schon 2005 wurde Federer als möglicher „Bester aller Zeiten“ Kandidat gehandelt. Obwohl er seinen ersten Majortitel schon früher im Jahr 2003 (in Wimbledon) gewonnen hat, war er in Houston nicht die Hauptattraktion. Andre Agassi und Andy Roddick (die 2003 auch Majortitel gewonnen haben) gehörten die Herzen des texanischen Publikums und Turnierpromotor, Mattress Mac“ Jim McIngvale.
McIngvale hat Federer während der Siegerehrung fast ignoriert, da er sich in seinem Stolz verletzt fühlte weil sich der junge Schweizer in Interviews negativ zu den Bedingungen des Platzes geäußert hatte. Im November 2004 als Federer zweifellos der größte Star im Herrentennis war, versöhnten sich die beiden. McIngvale lud Federer und den ehemaligen Präsidenten George Bush sowie First Lady Barbara Bush zu einem Mittagessen in seinen Club. (der aus Houston stammende Bush war ein ehemaliger Topspieler in seinen jüngeren Jahren).
Steht diese Zukunft auch Sascha Zverev bevor? Möglicherweise noch nicht. Im Gegensatz zu Federer hat Zverev noch kein Major gewonnen: Sein bestes Resultat ist nur ein Viertelfinale in Roland Garros im heurigen Jahr. Zverev spielte heuer eine ordentliche Saison, die er als Nummer 4 im Ranking beendete: Abgesehen vom Titel in London hat er das M-1000 in Madrid, das 500er Turnier in Washington und das 250er in München gewonnen. Zudem stand er im Finale der beiden M-1000 Turniere in Miami und Rom. Seine Bilanz war 58-19: Federers Bilanz 2003 war 78-17.
Zverevs Ausgangslage ist klar. Er ist ein klassischer Topspieler der späten 2010er Jahre. Mit 1,98m ist er genauso groß wie Juan Martin del Potro, bewegt sich aber deutlich besser als der Argentinier. Bei seinem Sieg am Samstag gegen Federer sagte ich, dass er mich an eine verbesserte Version von Tomas Berdych erinnert. Mit 21 Jahren ist er weit und breit der kompletteste aller jungen Spieler auf der Tour, der große Titel vor sich hat. Mit seinem Sieg am Sonntag ist er der erst 4. Spieler nach Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal und David Nalbandian, der Federer und Djokovic im Semifinale und Finale des gleichen Turnieres geschlagen hat.
Die Gegenargumente (für 2019) liegen jedoch auch auf der Hand. Das 7-Spiele Format bei den Majors hat er bis jetzt noch nicht optimal gemeistert. Dabei gilt es, in den frühen Runden nur so viel zu investieren um die 2. Woche mit einem fast vollen körperlichen und mentalen Akku zu erreichen. Auf dem Weg ins Viertelfinale von Paris musste er in den 3 vorhergehenden Runden jeweils einen 2 zu 1 Satzrückstand aufholen, wodurch er Dominic Thiem nichts mehr entgegenzusetzen hatte. Anfangs der Woche in London habe ich geschrieben, dass Zverev imstande ist, aggressiv zu spielen aber gerne in konservatives Spiel verfällt. Im Montreal Finale 2017 hat er gegen Federer von Anfang an aggressiv gespielt: Das würde ich gerne öfter von ihm sehen.
Wird er 2019 ein Grand Slam Turnier gewinnen? Von mir kommt ein klares „vielleicht“: um genauer zu sein würde ich sagen, dass die Wahrscheinlichkeit in etwa bei 35% liegt.
Heutzutage stellt sich Erfolg erst später ein als noch in den 2000er oder den 1990er Jahren. Vielleicht ist 21 das neue 18 oder 19. Und vielleicht steht 2019, 2020, 2021 und 2022 – und darüber hinaus – ganz im Zeichen von Sascha Zverev.
MERT ERTUNGA – @MertovsTDesk
Ich hasse es der weniger Enthusiastische hier zu sein, aber ein Major zu gewinnen – 5-Satz Matches zu spielen – ist eine ganz andere Herausforderung als sie Zverev in der O2 Arena zu überstehen hatte. Zudem war die Herausforderung in der O2 Arena eine Premiere für ihn. Infolge eines Erfolgslaufes wie ihn Sascha gerade in London hatte, neigen wird dazu zu vergessen, wie jung und nach wie vor neu er auf der Tour ist. Ich würde seine Chancen, 2019 ein Major zu gewinnen, deutlich besser einschätzen wenn er in den letzten zwei Jahren mehr als nur ein Viertelfinale gewonnen hätte bzw. noch weiter gekommen wäre.
Abgesehen davon, gibt es keinen Grund warum es nächstes Jahr nicht passieren könnte. Jedoch müsste er sich dafür in der ersten Jahreshälfte stetig weiterentwickeln und verletzungsfrei bleiben. Ehrlicherweise glaube ich aus den oben angeführten Gründen nicht, dass es schon bei den Australien Open soweit ist. Ich nehme aber an, dass er dennoch ein gutes Turnier in Melbourne spielt und danach können wir unsere Aufmerksamkeit den nächsten 3 Majors widmen. Roland Garros wird extrem schwer zu gewinnen sein wenn Novak Djokovic und Rafael Nadal gesund und in Form sind.
In Wimbledon könnte seine erste gute Chance sein, den Titel zu gewinnen, abhängig davon wer in welcher Form dabei ist. Denn dann sind 6 Monate der Saison vergangen und Sascha könnte durch gute Ergebnisse viel Selbstvertrauen aufgebaut haben. Mit seinem starken Aufschlag und der Fähigkeit den Ball zu beschleunigen, erscheinen mir Wimbledon und die U.S. Open als die beiden besten Möglichkeiten für einen Titel. Allerdings ist meine Definition von „Möglichkeit“ in diesem Zusammenhang eher ein kleiner Hoffnungsschimmer. Ich sage nicht nein, aber empfehle vorsichtigen Enthusiasmus.
MATT ZEMEK – @mzemek
Sascha Zverev wird ein Major gewinnen…aber nicht nächstes Jahr.
Als Zverev Novak Djokovic im Finale abfertigte – dem Rom Finale 2017 – glaubte ich fest daran, dass er eines Tages eine der prestigeträchtigsten Trophäen im Tennis in die Höhe stemmen wird. Zverev war an diesem Tag eiskalt und unbeeindruckt. Auch wenn Djokovic nicht 100 prozentig fit war, wie wir im Nachhinein erfahren haben, hat Zverev diese schwierige Aufgabe mit einer unglaublichen Gelassenheit und Klarheit bewältigt. Als ich gesehen habe, wie er im Titelmatch der ATP Finals die langen Ballwechsel gegen Djokovic kontrolliert hat, erinnerte ich mich wieder daran.
Dieser Spieler wird es schaffen. Er wird eines der 4 wichtigsten Turniere im Tennis gewinnen. Die Frage ist nicht OB, sondern WANN.
Ich glaube aber nicht, dass es schon 2019 soweit sein wird.
Rafael Nadal, sofern er für die Sandsaison fit ist, wird Zverev in Roland Garros in die Schranken weisen. Djokovic ist der klare Favorit bei den Australien Open, wo er nach 2018 wieder gesund dabei ist. Roger Federer wird in Wimbledon angreifen, wo vermutlich aber auch Djokovic der Favorit ist.
Ich glaube wenn 2019 alles gut läuft für Zverev, sind die U.S. Open seine beste Chance. Wenn die „Big 3“ viel gespielt und viele Turniere gewonnen haben, könnte Zverev zur Stelle sein und einen Vorteil aus deren Müdigkeit ziehen… aber ich bezweifle es.
In Zverevs einzigem Grand Slam Viertelfinale letztes Jahr war sein Akku leer, da der Aufwand dieses eine Major Viertelfinale zu erreichen enorm war. Er hat so viel Energie verbraucht, sich durch 5-Satz Matches zu kämpfen, dass er seine Chancen das Turnier zu gewinnen vergeben hat.
Zverev ist die ATP Finals richtig angegangen. So muss er auch bei den Majors spielen… aber bei Grand Slam Turnieren so zu spielen ist etwas womit er nicht vertraut ist. Die Anpassung an ein Turnier stellt ein Puzzle dar, das er lösen muss, und das kostet Zeit – möglicherweise mehr Zeit als ein Jahr.
Was wäre ein gutes Grand Slam Jahr 2019 für Zverev? Ich glaube nicht, dass er unbedingt eines gewinnen muss, er muss nur konstant stark spielen und die Weichen für den nächsten Sprung 2020 stellen.
Zwei Viertelfinali und zwei Semifinali bei den Grand Slams 2019 wäre gut – ein Finale wäre ideal, aber nicht unbedingt notwendig. Dann wird er mit dem Wissen, bereit für große Titel zu sein, in die Saison 2020 gehen. In 2019 muss er nicht sämtliche Zweifel ausräumen, er muss nur seine Grand Slam Blockade überwinden, nicht konstant über 2 Wochen bei den großen Turniere spielen zu können.
2018 Embodied Everything Great About Novak Djokovic
Go back to that cramped press room in Stade Roland Garros. Go back to that scene in Paris. Go back to the moment when Novak Djokovic had just lost to Marco Cecchinato at the French Open after having a 5-2 lead in the fourth set.
That was not a happy time for Djokovic. How could it have been? Matches he didn’t normally lose were lost. Situations he normally handled were unable to be contained and managed. No, he was not in the same place as March in the United States — his game was clearly getting better — but no one thought he was ready for Wimbledon.
In fact, in the aftermath of that loss to Cecchinato, Djokovic gave a throwaway line — obviously in frustration and laced with sarcasm, not reflecting anything close to actual intent — about possibly not playing the grass season. No one should have taken that statement at face value. Some did.
The point of the statement was not what Djokovic’s words literally meant. The point of the statement was the frustration beneath the words. A great champion was growing tired of not being able to unleash his best tennis, after having laid the tennis world at his feet two years earlier, in June of 2016.
It was in that same place — Roland Garros, Paris — where Djokovic completed his seminal “Novak Slam” and did what neither Roger Federer nor Rafael Nadal had ever been able to do, and will almost certainly never do before they retire as professional tennis players: Win four straight major tournaments. Only Rod Laver gets to share that distinction among male tennis players in the Open Era.
Djokovic set the bar so high — and busted through the Fedal axis of power so thoroughly and convincingly — that his status in the sport’s history had forever changed, even if the media lavished more attention upon Federer. People who knew what Djokovic was up against at the end of the 2010 tennis season — who knew how hard it had been for him to coexist in a competitive sense with these two giants of the sport — could appreciate the enormity of what Djokovic subsequently achieved from 2011 through 2016, and HOW he achieved it.
In a long introductory essay to my 2017 book on Djokovic, I spent time focusing on this process of absorbing how hard it would be to conquer Federer and Nadal… and then actually doing it as Djokovic did. This feat is one of the most remarkable transformations in sports (not just tennis) history.
It belongs to Novak Djokovic alone.
No wonder he was frustrated after losing to Marco Cecchinato.
Go back to that moment. Djokovic had not just lost to Nadal or Federer, but with Wimbledon just around the bend, Djokovic knew he would likely have to go through one or both to return to the mountaintop of tennis.
A lot of people thought he was on the way back. What a lot FEWER people thought in Paris, in early June of 2018, was that he would restore his empire so quickly, chiefly at the All-England Club.
But he did… and he did so by going through Nadal… and he did so by winning an epic match which very likely denied Rafa an 18th major title. Djokovic — in a manner very similar to the 2007 Wimbledon final between Federer and Nadal — won a third-set tiebreaker, served his way out of deep trouble in a fifth set, and then broke Nadal to put his hands on another Wimbledon trophy. He continued a decade-long pattern of absorbing a rough loss in Paris but then transforming the trajectory of his season and career at Wimbledon.
Djokovic used his emergence at Wimbledon as emotional fuel for a run to his first-ever Cincinnati title and the completion of the Golden Set of Masters 1000 championships, nine out of nine, the only player to pull off the feat. Djokovic was nearly felled by the New York heat and humidity, but he survived in more ways than one. As soon as the weather became remotely normal in the semifinals and final, he destroyed Kei Nishikori and Juan Martin del Potro. He vanquished everyone in his path in Shanghai.
No, he did not win Bercy or the 2018 ATP Finals, but he left 2018 as the No. 1 player in the world and the only member of the Big 3 to win two major titles.
He is — indisputably — the 2018 ATP Player of the Year. In half a season — from the rubble of Roland Garros — he reestablished his place not just in the top tier of men’s tennis, but at the very top of the mountain, looking down on everyone else, including and especially the Fedal Axis.
That he regained his place as No. 1 is not the surprise of the 2018 season for Djokovic. That he did so with such speed and immediacy is the remarkable part of a season which, at the start of April, lacked Marian Vajda and lacked the ability to beat Taro Daniel or Benoit Paire on hardcourts.
Vajda, of course, is the man who began to set the wheels in motion for this renaissance. As soon as Djokovic returned to Vajda, he had already made the coaching decision which enabled this transformation to occur.
That said, the athlete still has to execute what the coach wants him to do. The athlete still has to perform in pressure situations, no matter what the coach says. Djokovic still had to turn frustration into inspiration at the start of the summer of 2018. That he engineered the transformation is not remarkable. That he made it happen so decisively and profoundly in the span of just five months — wresting World No. 1 and Player of the Year honors from the Fedal Axis — is the true marker of iconic greatness at the level Novak Djokovic has established.
The man who — staring at an Everest-sized climb at the end of 2010 — scaled every inch of rock to rise above his two fabled rivals over the next six years has, in 2018, replicated that same massive ascent up the mountain, only in a compressed amount of time.
The 2018 tennis season embodied everything great about Novak Djokovic. It offered, within the context of 10 months, a perfect representation of the journey which has defined — and immortalized — a career which, in the course of history, could still become the greatest that has ever existed.
ROUNDTABLE — Will Sascha Zverev Win A Major In 2019
JANE VOIGT — @downthetee
Predicting the Grand Slam future of any tennis players is, of course, a roll of the dice. However, the chances that Alexander Zverev will win a Grand Slam tournament in 2019 spiked Sunday, when he took down five-time champion and world number one Novak Djokovic in the final of the Nitto ATP Finals in London, 6-4, 6-3. The outcome was not predicted, especially against what has become the toughest opponent on tour since Wimbledon.
Nonetheless, the 21-year-old Zverev showed massive mental strength, a forehand that packed much more of a punch than it had even a month ago, and court positioning closer to the baseline which gave him split-second opportunities to syphon time away from Djokovic’s strokes, tactics and comfort.
But here’s the kicker. Zverev defeated Roger Federer in the semifinals to earn the right to play Djokovic. Federer has won the year-ending ATP extravaganza six times. That the six-foot-six German put away both these men, with a combined Grand Slam trophy case of 34, in two days amounts to a dose of confidence in himself, his team, and new coach Ivan Lendl that could push him over the line come 2019.
Sport pundits have admitted for well over a year that Zverev would win a Grand Slam event. This year he got closer, scoring a quarterfinal run at Roland Garros. But his propensity to drag out five-set matches undermined any real shot at a major. Lendl was probably the man on Zverev’s team who suggested he get himself on or close to the baseline. Lendl was probably the one who suggested that Zverev trust himself enough to come to the net and put points away. Put sets away. Get on with it, man.
If that was the case and Zverev paid that much attention to implement those coaching suggestions, then he is ready to head to the top of the Grand Slam class.
ANDREW BURTON – @burtonad
He was only in his early 20s, but a lot had been expected from him for years. It was his second time among the game’s top eight players; now on successive days he took out the crowd favorite in the semifinal and the veteran in his 30s (whom he had already played in the round-robin stage) in the final. The ATP had a bright new star. Would his rise continue next year?
Next year would be 2004, and the answer, emphatically, was yes.
Roger Federer would use his 2003 Houston win to start a four-year sequence in which he won 11 majors, three of them in 2004. By 2005 Federer was seen as a possible “greatest ever” candidate. He had actually won his first major earlier in 2003 at Wimbledon, but he certainly wasn’t the main attraction in Houston. Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick (who had also won majors in 2003) were cheered on by the Texas crowd and tournament promoter “Mattress Mac” Jim McIngvale.
McIngvale almost ignored Federer during the trophy ceremony, smarting at what he saw as interview slights from the young Swiss about the facilities at McIngvale’s club. By November of 2004, when Federer was unquestionably the biggest star in the men’s game, the two men made up and McIngvale hosted a lunch for Federer and former President and First Lady George and Barbara Bush at the club. (Bush, a Houstonian, had been a former star tennis player in his younger days.)
Is that future also in store for Sascha Zverev? Probably not quite yet. Unlike Federer, Zverev hasn’t won a major yet: His best result is a single quarterfinal at Roland Garros earlier this year. Zverev had a decent 2018, ending fourth in the rankings: Apart from the London title, he won a M-1000 in Madrid, a 500 in Washington, and a 250 in Munich, and was a finalist in two M-1000s in Miami and Rome. Zverev went 58-19 in 2018: in 2003 Federer was 78-17.
The case for Zverev is straightforward. He’s a prototypical late-2010s top ATP player, listed at the same height (6-6) as Juan Martin del Potro but with more fluid movement. Saturday, during his defeat of Federer, I said that Zverev reminded me of a more polished Tomas Berdych. At 21, he’s far and away the most accomplished young player, with many more big titles to come. His win Sunday made him the fourth player to beat Federer and Novak Djokovic in a semifinal and final after Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal and David Nalbandian. That’s pretty good company.
But the case against (in 2019 alone) is also fairly simple to write. Zverev has yet to master the seven-match format at majors, which rewards doing just enough in the early rounds to arrive in the second week with a near-full physical and mental tank. Yes, he made the quarterfinals in Paris this spring, but he came back from two sets to one down in his three prior matches, and he had nothing left against Dominic Thiem. Earlier this week I wrote that Zverev is capable of playing aggressively, but tends to prefer playing conservatively. In the Montreal final in 2017, he took the game to Federer from the first ball: I’d love to see him do that more often.
Will he win a major in 2019? It’s a definite “maybe” from me: If pressed I’d say a 35-percent probability.
Success comes to players later in the 2010s than it did in the 2000s or the 1990s. Maybe 21 is the new 18 or 19. Maybe 2019, and 2020, and 2021, and 2022 – and beyond – will belong to Sascha Zverev.
If it does, I promise I will tell you that I didn’t see it coming. Just as I didn’t in 2004.
MERT ERTUNGA – @MertovsTDesk
I hate to be the unenthusiastic one here, but winning a major — playing best-of-five matches — is a different level of challenge than the one Zverev had to overcome at the O2 Arena. And the one at O2 Arena was a first for him. In the wake of dream runs like the one Sascha just had in London, we tend to forget how young and still new he is to the tennis arena. I would feel a lot more comfortable about Zverev’s chances of winning a major in 2019 had he reached more than one quarterfinal in the last two years, or even went past one.
Having said that, there is no reason why that could not occur next year, but it would need to be the result of a gradual process that takes place during the first half of the year, with no injury involvement. Honestly, I do not see it happening in Australia due to what I noted above. Assuming he still has a successful Australian Open, then we can turn our attention to the next three majors. Roland Garros will be extremely difficult to win if both Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal are healthy and in form.
Wimbledon could be his closest (in terms of time) chance to winning the title depending on who shows up and in what form. That will be six months into the 2019 season and Sascha may have built some serious confidence by then, riding great results from earlier in the year to complement the O2 title. With his big serve and acceleration skills, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open appear to me as the two possibilities. Having said that, my definition of “possibility” in this specific context is closer to what a glimmer of “maybe” represents in a pitch-dark “unlikely.” I am not saying nay, but I am recommending cautious enthusiasm.
MATT ZEMEK – @mzemek
Sascha Zverev will win a major… but not next year.
I firmly believed Zverev would one day lift one of the most prestigious trophies in tennis when he dispatched Novak Djokovic in a final – the 2017 Rome final. Zverev was so clinical and unbothered that day. Even though we know in hindsight that Djokovic was not 100-percent physically fit, it remained that Zverev handled a high-stress occasion with great poise and levelheadedness. That outlook came back to the forefront of my mind when watching him control long rallies against Djokovic in the ATP Finals championship match.
This man will get there. He will win one of the four most important tournaments in tennis. It’s not a matter of IF, but WHEN.
On this point, I don’t think 2019 will deliver this first title.
Rafael Nadal, if healthy for clay season, wipes Zverev off the board at Roland Garros. Djokovic is the firm favorite at the Australian Open, where he will relish being “whole” again. Roger Federer will try to make a charge at Wimbledon, with Djokovic probably still being the favorite there.
I think if it all comes together for Zverev in 2019, the U.S. Open would represent his best chance. If the Big 3 have played a lot of tennis and won a lot of tournaments, Zverev could swoop in and take advantage of their tired legs… but I doubt it.
Zverev’s only major quarterfinal last year was a match in which he had nothing left in the tank. The costs of getting his one major quarterfinal in 2018 were large. He spent so much energy fighting through five-set matches that he dismantled his chances of winning that tournament.
Yes, Zverev played the ATP Finals the right way. THAT is how he needs to play at the majors… but of course, doing that at majors is not something he is familiar with. The pacing of the tournament represents a puzzle he must adjust to, and that will probably take time – more time than one year.
What would be a good 2019 for Zverev at the majors? I don’t think he has to win one. He just needs to be consistently solid and set the table for the next leap in 2020.
Give me three quarterfinals and two semifinals at the majors in 2019 – one final would be ideal, but not necessary – and Zverev would be able to enter 2020 knowing he would be ready to claim great riches. 2019 doesn’t have to answer every question or quiet every doubt. It just has to get past the idea that Zverev can’t consistently play late in the second weeks of these signature tournaments.